Do You Have Ideas, or Do Ideas Have You?

neil postman

Neil Postman

Have you ever wondered how you were fortunate enough to have been born in the right country, the right state, the right city, into the right religion or the right secular worldview, and especially into the right political party so that your opinion is obviously superior to those with whom you frequently take issue? If you haven’t, you are not alone.

The late Neil Postman wrote that “education is a defense against culture.” His declaration is egregiously underappreciated, and his observation has much more to do with the existential nature of freedom and authenticity than most of the New Age remedies made popular in the past half-century. The prospect of being motivated by ideological forces that one is unaware of, though they may be crystal clear to others, undermines the very foundation of freedom and the potential for authenticity.

Postman’s remark lies at the heart of today’s great political divide—it’s why our current political discourse defaults to emotional misrepresentation. Until we fully understand the underlying reality of Postman’s admonition, we have little hope of escaping political manipulation.

The headline in this piece poses one of life’s most difficult questions, but one that needs to hold our attention. When ideas have us as individuals, it means we can be accurately described as ideologues. Dictionaries define an ideologue as someone who zealously promotes a body of doctrine. That’s where culture comes in because it provides us with ready-to-assume worldviews. The penalty for disbelieving is to be considered “not one of us.”

We have to learn to keep our culture in perspective so as not to become easy to manipulate. The only way to do that is to vastly broaden our intellectual and emotional horizons. One of the most disappointing attributes of our species is that, in spite of our enormous brains, we can grow up in enclaves of every imaginable size from family to nation states while naturally assuming that our particular group is beyond reproach. We believe that everything we do is automatically justifiable by the nature of who we are, while we learn to view other poor fools on the planet as barely more valuable than objects. If they’re deemed too different, we are likely to view them as evil.

It’s helpful to envision ideology as being analogous to a computer program that’s closed to new updates. This is where zealotry kicks in. Since the code can’t be altered, emotionally charged rebooting becomes compensation strategy. True believers don’t modify their views, regardless of the facts presented. Instead they respond by upping their ideological passion with hatred and contempt. When this happens at a national level, it’s only a short distance to fascism, as fear of the other becomes a bonding instrument and a rallying point.

If we lie down on a blanket under a summer sky and relax with our eyes on the clouds, in a short time, the clouds will appear to begin forming images of all sorts of things from animals and objects to faces of particular individuals. But these objects are not in the clouds. These are images in our heads, put there by experience. What we don’t see and can’t see in the clouds comprises all of the vast things in the world that we don’t know about. When we compare what we know with what we haven’t yet learned, the difference is so vast and so overwhelming in size and scope that declarations about our belonging to the most important group of people on the planet seem like blasphemy.

By the time we reach adulthood we have internalized a mountain of assumptions about things we’ve never seriously looked into in depth. Our brains, however, looking out for our well-being as they do, take these experiences as precise representations of reality. This is the reason Postman wondered why learning to ask questions is not one of the main focuses of education. To him it was unthinkable that we are taught by people suffering from the same malady we have, people who’ve never critically questioned their own assumptions.

Charles HayesOne of life’s greatest lessons is that upon close examination things often turn out to be not as they first appeared. What could be more disturbing than to discover that your life’s goals and ambitions are the result of an ideology about which you remain unaware?

Once again, ask yourself the headline questions. By now your answers may be obvious. If they aren’t, or if there is any doubt in your mind, then you have the criteria for more questions. If you determine that your ideas have you, it can be an enthralling experience to loosen their grip.

Charles Hayes
Self-University

Posted: Sunday, 1 July 2012

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